WHEN YOU’RE 21 YOU’RE NO FUN Ladytron are as hard to categorize now as they were 10 years ago.
More than a decade into their career as trusted electro-pop veterans, Ladytron's place in the world of pop music seems as precarious as when they started. It's unsettling to think the sleek, photogenic Liverpool co-ed quartet broke in 10 long years ago. Back then they were an icy, futuristic synthpop machine that came so far out of left field that they drew immediate comparisons to Elastica (seemingly solely by virtue of that group's female half), and got intertwined with the electroclash fad.
That they survived all that — where have you gone, Soviet and Miss Kittin? — is a triumph unto itself. But as chillwave positions itself to serve as this era's electroclash, it's necessary to remember that, in terms of the evolution of electronic music, we're light years away from the days when the smothering synthed-out "Playgirl" bounced around select dance floors and brought debut record 604 to the forefront of detached-cool whatever-wave. This shit is everywhere now.
"In the beginning, people talked about us making pop music for a parallel universe, and now a lot of pop music sounds like us," says programmer Daniel Hunt on the phone from Portland, Oregon, where he's on the tour that brings Ladytron to the Paradise tomorrow. "We were very conscious at the beginning, we didn't want to make anything generic sounding at all. If there developed a genre, we made sure we weren't trapped by it. For the past five or six years, we've just been alone in our own spot."
Hunt swears his production work isn't influenced by any outside forces or trends, but the album art for Ladytron's latest, fifth studio album, Gravity the Seducer (Nettwerk), screams bloody chillwave with its bleached-out, Hipstamatic-esque image of two steel beams stretched across a faded mountain landscape. It feels like a cop-out, until you listen to the record.
Gravity the Seducer lacks any of the instant classics that now define the strong Ladytron catalogue. There's none of the electro bubble-bounce of "Seventeen," nor is there a "Destroy Everything You Touch" rager. It's not a singles album. But taken as a whole, the album offers a striking sonic struggle between density and airiness. Opener "White Elephant" is a crystal seance tickler with Helen Marnie's hypnotic vocal delivery and a high-pitched organ; and "White Gold" is a deep, almost new-age stomper. "Ace of Hz" spins a pinwheel of synths but stays contained, and "Ambulance" would no doubt get tossed into the witch haus bin if any moniker other than Ladytron were attached to it (it kinda works, though). "It's not like in the past where we've felt like we had more singles than we actually put out," says Hunt. "This one is more about the record as a whole."
The wholeness of Gravity has to do with the preparation behind it. With some time between the last tours for 2008's nearly industrial Velocifero, Hunt and crew were well-rested when they got down to the writing and recording Gravity, which stretched out over four months. "The last two albums we commenced recording very quickly after coming off the road," he says. "This one, we had a full year off the road to record. We were liberated from considering the live set. You can't write an album on tour."